Cook vows to fight threat to Rushdie

SALMAN Rushdie was given public government backing yesterday when he was permitted to hold his first press conference in the ornate surroundings of the Foreign Office.

While Douglas Hurd, when Foreign Secretary, met Salman Rushdie behind tightly closed doors, the novelist yesterday sat next to Robin Cook as the minister pledged to put pressure on Iran to withdraw the death sentence on him.

The meeting came nine years after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Mr Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses.

Following the signal from the Prime Minister, who welcomed Mr Rushdie to dinner at Chequers on Saturday, the anniversary of the fatwa, Mr Cook made clear his personal sense of outrage and his determination to act.

"I have given [Mr Rushdie] an assurance that working to remove the threat to his life will be a central priority of this Government's policy in relation to Iran and I'll be working to get the maximum support for that from our European partners," Mr Cook said.

The Government is to ask for a written assurance from the current more moderate Iranian government that it, unlike its predecessor, would not further the fatwa against the novelist.

And it is to encourage European support to secure the removal of the $2.5m (pounds 1.6m) bounty upon Mr Rushdie's head.

Standing beside Mr Cook and beneath a painting of St Cecilia, martyred for refusing to renounce her Christian faith, Mr Rushdie, 50, contrasted the action with that of the previous Conservative administration.

"I do have a real sense of a new drive behind this issue. I'm very grateful," he said.

Mr Rushdie said he suspected the Tories had sent out "nods and winks" to Europe that a low-key approach was the best way to tackle his predicament and he hoped Europeans would now follow the more positive lead being offered.

Mr Rushdie said he remained proud of The Satanic Verses and he believed few British Muslims were now opposed to it.